Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: The Cost of Not Addressing Cost – Financial Barriers to Entry for Human Rights-Based Open Source Investigations

Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: The Cost of Not Addressing Cost – Financial Barriers to Entry for Human Rights-Based Open Source Investigations

[Kate Pundyk is the former Open Source Investigation Lead at the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab and previously worked at the Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is currently studying at the Oxford Internet Institute on a Rhodes Scholarship.]

Author’s note: I am grateful to Adriano Belisario and Jorge Ruiz Reyes for their conversations conceptualizing this article, as well as those who agreed to be interviewed. All errors are my own.

Open source investigations have been defined by their democratizing potential— the idea that anyone with a computer could pull together sources to hold powerful entities accountable. Given their increasing relevance to international human rights accountability, efforts exist for the professionalization and development of technical standards to bring the field towards greater evidentiary usefulness. These vital efforts will increase the admissibility of digital evidence in courtrooms, ground data collection in a stronger foundation of research ethics, and allow greater interoperability/replication of findings across organizations. However, such professionalization comes at a cost — a monetary one. The gold standard software, data streams, technical expertise, and physical access to standard-setting fora is predominantly accessible to well-funded, (often English-speaking) organizations. 

Building off of Sophie Dyer and Gabriela Ivens’s 2020 article on feminist open source investigation, this short commentary will explore the monetary cost of ethical open source investigations, and the consequences these costs have on whose stories get told, and by whom. Informed by the author’s own experience and conversations with researchers from other organizations, this commentary seeks to highlight the role of precarious labour in human rights investigations, with an eye towards ensuring conversations about resource sharing occur in parallel with standardization efforts. 

 Geopolitics and Financial Realities 

It is impossible to write about financial inequalities without acknowledging the geopolitical realities of resource distribution. Organizations and investigators operating in the Global South face challenges accessing sustainable funding and training resources in their own language. In 2020, Harvard Kennedy School’s Global Philanthropy Report identified 260,358 foundations globally: 60% of which are located in Europe and 35% in North America. While it is true that some funders located in the Global North seek out organizations in the Global South, these connections are difficult to facilitate and frequently amount to one-off grants. One researcher I spoke to highlighted how, for organizations in the Global South, it is difficult to know who the funders are, let alone to reach out to them. Further, this distribution of resources from the Global North to the Global South often reflects the geopolitical priorities of the donor’s context, meaning some crises get more financial attention than others, particularly emphasizing more ‘visually dramatic’ crises. These dynamics lead to an environment where resources are very concentrated on a few globally newsworthy humanitarian crises. 

The Financial Cost of Modern Open Source Investigation 

Given that resources are asymmetrically distributed, it’s helpful to outline where those resources can be spent in the course of an open source investigation. As defined in the Berkeley Protocol, open source data is “information that any member of the public can observe, purchase or request, without requiring special legal status or unauthorized access”. In particular, this section focuses on the financial cost of collecting and storing such data in a way that would meet the evidentiary standards of a court or tribunal, but also, is responsive to the human rights impacts of an investigation itself. This section will focus on costs in two key areas: training and technology. 

Human rights-based open source investigations require training, particularly for more advanced methods. For baseline skills such as geolocation, there are a variety of free online resources by Amnesty International, Bellingcat, or YouTube trainers like Ben Strick. However, skills like 3D reconstruction, automated data collection or geospatial analysis often require more structured training. These courses are expensive and often, for investigation-specific applications, occur in English in the Global North. With the increasing focus on digital evidence admissibility, training also must go beyond technical concepts and cover legal questions such as chain of custody procedures and research ethics. While larger organizations can employ multiple people to share this multidisciplinary load, small organizations rely on a few people to do it all. One researcher highlighted the steep learning curve — just when you learn one tool, there is always a new one around the corner. 

Figure 1 attempts to demonstrate the variety of tools organizations pay for while working on the various stages of an open source investigation. None of these tools are mandatory, and many quality free tools exist (for example, MetaOSINT or Sugarcube). As such, many organizations rely on a combination of paid and free tools. In the data collection phase of an investigation, there are an array of paid services available from data streams (for example, Maxar or Planet satellite imagery access or MarineTraffic historical data) to analysis tools (such as ArcGIS) to open source investigation tools such as Hunchly or Maltego. While the exact price of these tools varies as some companies offer civil society discounts, organizations can spend in the thousands on software, particularly when integrating tools like commercial satellite imagery. While not essential, access to these tools simplifies workflows and can help investigators integrate larger amounts of data. Additionally, some tools are considered the industry standard for evidence collection; their use helps investigations hold up in court. 

As the open source investigation space professionalizes, increasing attention is being paid to the storage and access procedures of the raw evidence. A 2020 Human Rights Watch report, audited social media links cited in HRW reports going back to 2007 and found 11% of the links had been removed. This demonstrates why investigators must archive copies of original source material, particularly in a secure environment, protected from unauthorized access. Many organizations have subscriptions to cloud storage platforms (like Tresorit) or institutional servers. International justice is “painstakingly slow”, so no matter the platform used, organizations must be able to maintain it over a long period of time. This means preserving access logs and keeping security up to date so that it might be admissible. This long timeframe is particularly difficult for organizations without predictable funding. As a final step, organizations often use paid tools to report their findings, such as 3D reconstruction tools (Rhino or Unity) or graphic design (Adobe Suite) to make their findings more comprehensible and visually engaging. 

This section highlights how, although the evidence itself is open source, the digital infrastructure of an investigation often is not. While these costs are usually covered by organizations or grants, there are more personal costs associated with open source investigations that often fall on the researchers themselves. 

Precarious Labour in Human Rights Investigations 

While the previous section highlighted the cost of investigations to organizations, there are also costs for individual researchers, something that is particularly challenging as many work in precarious settings. Some investigators are volunteers, while others are contract workers who sometimes wait months before invoices are paid. This is all while working in an environment that requires personal risk. Dubberley and Ivens (2022) outline three core risks to the wellbeing of an investigator: “digital security risks,” “targeting through trolling,” and “vicarious trauma”. 

Despite best efforts, open source investigations expose those doing them to privacy risks. Researchers can accidentally access content using their personal profiles, open a malicious file, or be subjected to targeted hacking if their role in a particular investigation becomes known. This means investigators must invest in heightened privacy tools, which may or may not be covered by their employer. While free resources exist to train researchers on how to manage risk, virtual private networks (VPNs), password managers, antivirus software and other tools charge subscription fees. In the case of VPNs, for example, using free alternatives actually puts researchers more at risk. The risk of not being able to afford consistent privacy protection is particularly challenging for researchers who jump from contract-to-contract or volunteer for investigations, as they have little institutional support to rely on. These security risks are compounded by the personal toll working in this environment can take.

The issue of precarious labour is particularly concerning in human rights investigations due to investigators’ exposure to graphic material as part of their work. Vicarious trauma is a well-documented risk of open source investigations but it is getting more attention as the field grows. In their forthcoming book, Graphic: Trauma and Meaning in Our Online Lives, UC Berkeley’s Alexa Koenig and Andrea Lampros dive deeper into what graphic material does to our brains, our communities, and social movements, suggesting practical skills to minimize the effect of repeat/prolonged exposure. In an email relating to this piece, Lampros highlighted why resiliency work is so important: 

“We need to find more holistic ways to investigate atrocities and not perpetuate the macho burnout mentality that has often reigned in this work. Why? Because those of us lucky to live outside of war zones have a responsibility to stay engaged for the long haul—bearing witness for those who have no choice.”

This resiliency work intersects with economics, as precarious often means that therapy or other coping mechanisms, like gym memberships, are not institutionally supported for investigators. In countries without socialized mental health support, this can mean that help is out of reach. As Lampros highlights, investigator resilience is part of the quality of the overall investigation — not supporting the needs of the researcher risks undermining the quality of their work but also their ability to continue contributing to the field. 

The Path Forward

This article has attempted to map the costs associated with human rights based open source investigations, with a particular eye to how these costs prevent organizations without access to sustainable funding from fully contributing to the field. This is especially important for ensuring representation for communities of colour, particularly in regions where systemic racism has created systematized economic disempowerment. 

While this article primarily enumerates challenges, there is also good work happening to try to make human rights investigation more inclusive. Organizations like Mnemonic embed within communities to ensure investigations reflect local context but also to train grassroots organizations. The Berkeley Protocol is being translated into practitioner guides to make legal standards more accessible. Organizations like SITU Research are developing new open source tools to lower the barriers for more advanced investigative techniques. These steps demonstrate the type of commitment to diversity that is needed to bring more balance to the field. Further efforts can be undertaken to put grant money and training resources in communities where the harms are occurring. While the emphasis is often on the production of court admissible evidence, this challenge might be overcome, as suggested by Dyer and Ivens, by giving more attention to “investigations working outside legal systems in the pursuit of non-judicial forms of social justice.”

Open source investigations, like any line of research, are shaped by who holds the power and money is perhaps one of power’s most blunt tools. If only the economically privileged (or those adjacent to them) are able to contribute, critical investigations will be overlooked and evidence will be lost. As Yvonne McDermott, Daragh Murray and Alexa Koenig wrote in 2019: “Open source research has the potential to profoundly affect not just whose stories get told, but also who gets to tell those stories, and who will listen to them”. Ensuring a diverse range of organizations have access to the financial resources to tell those stories protects that democratizing vision. While the proliferation of new tools and standards is inevitable — and desirable— this commentary has sought to underscore the cost of the field’s rising barriers to entry. 

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